Monday, December 7, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“TELL YOU WHAT 2016: Great New Zealand Nonfiction” Edited by Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99)

“Great New Zealand Nonfiction” says the subtitle, and I begin curling and uncurling my toes excitedly. When I reviewed Tell YouWhat: 2015 on this blog earlier this year, I wasn’t sure if it would indeed become the annual that it promised to be. Now that the volume labelled Tell You What: 2016 has come out (with the same subtitle) I feel more confident that this has now established itself as an annual event.  The two Auckland editors, Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood, have once again searched blog, website, magazine and learned journal for what they regard as the best New Zealand nonfiction of the year, although that term “nonfiction” is somewhat flexible, given that a few of the pieces included are decorated with fictional trimmings. There are 23 pieces this time – a few of them very brief, but with a higher proportion nearly hitting the 20-page mark than was the case last time. 12 women and 11 men are represented, so once again it’s scrupulously gender-equitable.
It is a good, stimulating and varied read, but anthologies of this sort are always like a box of chocolates. No reader will like all the flavours or respond to them all in the same way.
To brush off the least important thing – the foreword has been written by a media personality, John Campbell. In babbling, enthusiastic tone he tells us emphatically that, unlike folks when he was young, we have now in New Zealand learnt “the trick of standing upright here” and have found our own postcolonial voices and, he asserts, the variety of this volume’s contents proves the case. But so emphatic is Campbell that, paradoxically, he in fact suggests great uncertainty about what he is saying. If you have to crow so loudly about speaking in your own voice, you are really suggesting a degree of continuing cultural cringe.
Anyway, having got that off my chest, there is the variety of the contents.
Instinctively, my orderly brain started categorising them.
Consider first the Most Genuinely Informative essays.
One is Charles Anderson’s “Into the Black”, a gruelling and detailed account of the Foveaux Strait tragedy when the overloaded fishing vessel “Easy Rider” sank, killing all but one of its crew. In the same category is political journalist David Fisher’s “The OIA Arms Race” on how the Official Information Act is often circumvented by New Zealand bureaucrats, who make it difficult for journalists to retrieve information, because the bureaucrats are anxious for their ministers not to look bad. Hence there is the blocking of much information that may legally be in the public eye, all to the detriment of real journalism. And logically enough, this is immediately followed by Nicky Hager’s piece “Loose Lips”, on the perils of being an investigative journalist, and on the techniques to use when you wish to keep your sources confidential. On a completely different matter, Kristen Ng’s “Hanzu in a Headscarf” is equally informative in chronicling travels in a remote province of China. Han Chinese are doing their best (as they are in other provinces) to swamp or stamp out the local ethnic culture in the name of “modernisation”.
If your main desire in nonfiction is to find data or information, these four essays top the bill.
Nearly as valuable in this aspect is Joe Nunweek’s “Three Boys”, which I would categorise as An Essay Worth Arguing With. Nunweek is alarmed by the lack of equity in the way misbehaving teenagers can be suspended or expelled from schools. Nunweek’s main contention is that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are often victimised in this area. My argument is that, while his point is a valid one, he deals somewhat glibly with how schools really can deal with problem teenagers.
Then there are the contributions that are mainly Anecdotes.
Kirsten McDougall’s “A Small Candle, An Elk” uses an anecdote as a pretext for thoughtful belles lettres. It begins with a lively domestic tale about reprimanding a cat, which has soiled the house, and then morphs into a somewhat sententious reflection on the nature of the self. Ashleigh Young’s piece, about an encounter on a plane with a woman who could be a charlatan, is pure and undiluted anecdote. But anecdotes with a social point to make are Vicki Anderson’s selected tales of riding on public transport in post-earthquake Christchurch, showing how this has at least made some people act as part of a community.
Another well-represented category in Tell You What: 2016 is Advocacy Disguised As Confession. Sylvan Thomson talks about taking sex-change therapy and implicitly advocates the process in doing so. Dan Eichblatt’s  “On Being a Gayby Daddy” tells us how wonderful he is, as a gay man, for fathering a child for a lesbian couple and implicitly does ditto. Jenni Quilter’s “2WW” (the odd title refers to the Two Week Wait between a fertile woman’s ovulation and the onset of her next period) is basically a propaganda piece for IVF. I am bemused (a.) that the endnote implies that the author is American and not a New Zealander; and (b.) that a footnote on p.148 says it was specially written for this book. Wasn’t the idea to collect the best New Zealand nonfiction that had already published? There is likewise implicit advocacy in Matt Vickers’ “Lecretia’s Choice”. Vickers is the husband of Lecretia Seales, who (before her peaceful and unassisted death) was the centre of a pro-euthanasia campaign. While this piece expresses forcefully the grieving of a husband it is written to push the euthanasia cause.
While all first-person tales display a degree of self-awareness, the only contribution in which I detected true Self-discovery was Naomi Arnold’s “Lost and Found” on attending the Wanderlust yoga and music festival at Taupo. She sometimes wanders into New Age mysticism but is saved by the commonsensical and self-deprecating voice which can ask “When do these visions or wants or heartfelt desires becomes something you need to pay attention to and act upon, and when are you just being a self-indulgent dickhead?” (p.20) But, alas, it has one of those up-in-the-air conclusions that is not a conclusion
The collection’s greatest Oddity is Rachel Buchanan’s “For the Trees” – it is interesting for what it says about the difference between magazine articles and academic articles and their genesis, rather than for its ostensible subject. The collection’s Old Stager is Steve Braunias with his “Man on Fire”, a very good and studiedly witty tale about a house fire, which turns into a cancer scare.
But I did say, didn’t I, that any anthology like this is like a box of chocolates where not all flavours suit?
I found a little laboured Lynn Jenner’s story about the difficulty of retrieving a valuable family heirloom – a diamond ring – which had been lost in the Christchurch Earthquake. I was offended by Kate Camp’s professed ignorance in her short piece about visiting First World War graves in Europe. Ali Ikran’s piece about not being able to review Keri Hulme is genuinely a non-event. Megan Dunn’s piece, “The Ballad of Western Barbie”, is so arch you could parade troops under it. A childhood memoir hanging on the hook of a beloved Barbie doll. Giovanni Tiso’s “Philemon and Baucis” is quite a charming but, like the others I’ve gathered into this paragraph, slight.
I think Elizabeth Knox’s “Thoughts on Watching People Shout People Down” reflects very sensibly that Facebook, Twitter et al are great inducers of mass conformity and argues that people should stop and think before making their glib on-line statements. Fair enough. I agree. But it is expressed in a very opaque way.
Having dutifully name-checked nearly all the contents of this book, however, I do not wish to end on a negative note. So I close with the two pieces I regard as Unexpectedly Good.
            Ross Nepia Himona’s essay is called, rather dully,  “Some Thoughts on ANZAC Day”. It argues correctly that we should turn to academic historians to tell us the truth about the campaign, rather than relying on the recycled myth about the birth of nationhood. It advocates strongly that the day should be kept as a day for mourning the dead. The tone is careful and thoughtful, avoiding the rhetoric that this topic too often arouses.
Tina Makereti’s “This Compulsion in Us” concerns becoming a museum curator and struggling with the problem of appropriated and preserved taonga, especially human remains. Yet Makereti, a good imaginative writer, has the intellectual honesty to admit how she too has often been beguiled by, and attracted to, images promising “South Seas romance”, just as early European appropriators of Polynesian artefacts were.
This book offers a good plenty.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.  

 “PECHEUR D’ISLANDE” by “Pierre Loti” (first published 1886; variously translated into English as “The Iceland Fisherman” or “An Iceland Fisherman”)

Sometimes on this blog I have had the fun of dissecting defunct bestsellers such as John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, Somerset Maugham’s Christmas Holiday, Stephen McKenna’s Sonia, George du Maurier’s Trilby and Hugh Walpole’s Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, always with the excuse that old bestsellers have much to tell us about the tastes of earlier generations, even if the books themselves have not stood the test of time as great literature, and are often moth-eaten in terms of their values and attitudes.
With “Pierre Loti’s’ Pecheur d’Islande (The Iceland Fisherman), I’m in something of a quandary. Certainly it was a huge bestseller in France when it was first published in 1886 – the most popular book of its author, who usually wrote for a very large audience. In the original French at least, it has never been out of print. Though the outside world hasn’t noticed them much, six or seven film versions and TV adaptations have been made from it in France over the last 100 years. So it is a bona fide bestseller.
And yet it used to be regarded by French intellectuals as much more than that. It was taken seriously by highbrows. It was mentioned in all respectable histories of modern French literature. Sometimes it was pronounced a classic and a masterpiece. But I think it has gradually lost that esteem. Pecheur d’Islande now sits somewhere in the uncomfortable territory inhabited by old books which everybody knows, which a very large audience still reads, and yet at which most literati now turn up their noses. A kind of English equivalent might be R.D.Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, although that is a very different sort of novel from Pecheur d’Islande.
Reading an English translation, I tried to keep as open a mind as possible about it, but I soon found why it may have lost some of its lustre.
Its central story is both simplistic and sentimental.
Yann (or Jean) Gaos is an “Icelander” or Iceland fisherman – which means a Breton who sails on a fishing boat up to the chilly waters around Iceland, to fish for the swarming cod. He and his crewmates leave Brittany in spring and don’t return until the end of summer. “They had scarcely even seen a French summer”, says the author. Even in summer the Iceland seas can be perilous, and Breton churches are filled with memorials to fishermen who have drowned at sea. Gaud (Marguerite) Moan has come back to her childhood home in Brittany after being disillusioned with the big, smelly city of Paris. She meets and falls in love with Yann at a country-dance, but he will not commit to her. Her family are richer than his poor fishing family. He feels abashed by her (slightly) higher social status and refinement, and he says he is “married to the sea”.
So Yann (aged about 27) sails away yet again. He does not declare his love for Gaud. He is accompanied by the younger Sylvestre (aged 17) as part of the crew.
Gaud pines and longs for Yann’s return.
But two things happen.
Sylvestre is called to compulsory military service in the navy. Sylvestre ends up in Tonkin (where the French are building their Indo-Chinese empire) and is duly killed in a skirmish with the natives. Yann is shaken and grieves, but pretends to be stoic about it.
Then Gaud’s father loses all his money. Her family comes down in the world. She goes to live with grandmother Yvonne in her tiny cottage, where she has to care for the old woman who is sinking into senility.
When Yann returns from sea, he still brushes past Gaud. But finally, seeing the poverty she is now in, he feels no barrier between them. He declares his love at last. They marry. They are ecstatically happy for the six weeks they have before Yann’s departure on a new fishing boat.
Yann sails away. But the seas are stormy around Iceland, even in the summer months…….
You can see where this is going, especially with an author who clearly loves tugging heartstrings and who has decided on a tragic finale.
I do not want to be too dismissive of the tale qua tale. It is indeed melodramatic and sentimental. As I read it, the “story” parts kept appearing in my mind’s eye as tableaux like those paintings beloved of the Victorians, with titles like “The Sailor’s Farewell” or “The Grieving Widow”. Yann stoic in his storm-tossed boat. Gaud pining on the seashore as the dark clouds gather. The tearful grandmother farewelling Sylvestre as the navy takes him away. Sylvestre’s last vision of his Breton home as a Tonkinese cartridge cuts him down. Gaud praying in the little chapel for Yann’s safe return. Of course it is “pure” and free of any coarseness. There is a discreet reference to sailors telling crude tales of “foreign women” in distant ports. In one episode, when Yann cannot yet commit himself to Gaud, we are told that he finds pleasure in the company of other women down in Bordeaux. Before young Sylvestre sails from Brest, he spurns the prostitutes on the pavement. That is as specific as the novel gets about sexual matters and there is nothing to offend bien pensant 19th century readers.
And yet, my sniffiness aside, let me admit that moments of the sentiment sucked me in and I read them with pleasure as the novel’s first readers might have – especially Gaud’s final long and tortured vigil as she waits for Yann’s return.
But here is the main point about this novel – and the thing which once earned it such high regard in the literary world. In many respects the thin and un-nuanced story is much less important than the novel’s descriptiveness. Yann, Gaud, Sylvestre and old grandmother Yvonne are less interesting than the landscapes and seascapes they inhabit. “Pierre Loti’s” real forte is as an impressionist painter or musician in words. Think Debussy’s La Mer. Think Monet’s canvases of the cottage on the sea-cliff. That is Loti’s territory.
What makes Pecheur d’Islande most readable is the description of the Breton fishing boat’s smoky mess-room presided over by a statue of the Virgin Mary (the boat is called the Marie and most of the sailors pray, even if they don’t believe in God); and the description of the pale summer sunlight at midnight over the Iceland seas; and of the autumn fogs; and of the boat becalmed or stranded on a sandbank; and of a ferocious storm; and of the sailors each working his own line in a day’s toil; and of the ceremonies performed when they first sail; and of the chapel with all the memorials to dead sailors; and of the green bushes which flourish even in a Breton winter; and of the endless work of winds and waves.
There is an interesting tension at least inside Gaud, who has been to Paris and seen the big world but who, when she returns to Brittany, knows:
A sentiment of religion, an impression of the past, hung over all this, with a respect for the ancient cult, for the protecting symbols, for the Virgin, white and immaculate. By the side of the taverns, the church, its flight of steps littered with foliage, thrown open in the form of a wide sombre bay, with its odour of incense, with its candles seen in the obscurity within, and its ex-voto of sailors suspended everywhere from the sacred vault. By the side of the maidens bright with thoughts of love, the fiancées of sailors who had disappeared, the widows of men shipwrecked, issuing from the little chapel of the dead, in their long shawls of mourning, in their little glazed coifs; their eyes on the ground, silent, passing in the midst of life, like a dark warning. And hard by the sea, always the sea, the great nurse and the great devourer of these vigorous generations, stirring itself, too, making its noise, taking its part in the festival… Of all these things together, Gaud received a confused impression. Excited and laughing, but with heart strangely moved, she felt a kind of anguish seize her at the thought that this country now was become hers for always.” (Part 1, Chapter 4)
In this, I think we can see at least part of the novel’s attraction to a mass readership. It is presenting a way of life that was already becoming “quaint” even as the novel was being written. Indeed to many French readers, it is presenting the alien and therefore exotic world of the Celtic Bretons.
Yet some of “Loti’s” descriptions are so sharp and clear that they present nature with the immediacy of a good nature-wildlife documentary. Take this blending of sub-Arctic summer sunlight with the behaviour of a school of fish:
 “Eternal evening or eternal morning, it was impossible to tell: a sun which no longer indicated any hour remained in position always, presiding over this splendour of dead things; it was itself only another blur, almost without shape, enlarged so that it looked immense by a troubled halo… Around them [the fisherman] the aspects were of a kind of non-life, of a world dead or not yet created: the light gave no heat; things remained motionless and as if frozen for ever, under the gaze of this sort of great spectral eye which was the sun. The Marie cast on this expanse a shadow which was very long, like the shadows of evening, and which looked green among these polished surfaces reflecting the whiteness of the sky; and in all that shadowed part which gave no reflection one could distinguish by transparency what was happening under the water: innumerable fish, myriads and myriads, all alike, gliding noiselessly in the same direction, as if they had a goal in their perpetual journeying. They were the cod which were executing their evolutions together, all lengthwise in the same direction, strictly parallel, making an effect of grey hatchings, and agitated unceasingly with a rapid quivering, which gave an air of fluidity to this mass of silent lives. Sometimes, with a sudden stroke of the tail, they all turned together, showing the gleam of their silvered bellies; and then the same stroke of tail, the same turn were propagated through the entire shoal in slow undulations, as if thousands of metal blades had given, under water, each a little flash.”    (Part 1, Chapter 6)
I forgive Loti much of his sentimentality when he can be as sharp as that. True, he does use the pathetic fallacy shamelessly, as when Yann, on his fishing boat at sea, first hears of Sylvestre’s death and weeps – and the day is sombre and foggy with a whiteness blocking out the world and completely matching his mood. (Part 4, Chapter 1). True, there are some tiny splotches of the racial chauvinism of the age, as when Sylvestre goes into battle in far Tonkin and his fellow combatants shout:
 “ ‘Chinamen!’ (Annamites, Tonkinese, Blackflags, for these sailors were all the same Chinese family.) But it is impossible to describe the contempt, the old mocking rancour, the zest for battle, which they contrived to put in their manner of announcing them: ‘The Chinamen!’ ” (Part 3, Chapter 1)
But these can be accommodated by those who can see Pecheur d’Islande for what it is – a sentimental and dated book in plot and attitudes, but written by somebody with real poetic sensibility and great skill in colourful description.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  
And now, dear readers, let me mention a few matters that I have deliberately refrained from mentioning in my notice of Pecheur d’Islande. I did not want to distract from the quality of the novel itself.
It’s about this “Pierre Loti” chap and his current reputation.
“Pierre Loti” was the pen-name of a French career naval officer, Louis Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), who made his name with a series of exotic travels books about the places he had visited – Istanbul, Senegal, Tonkin, Tahiti etc. – as France expanded its colonial empire. His books combined fact with fiction, many of them being presented as novels. “Loti” had the habit of telling his tales in the first person and representing himself as irresistible to women. So many of his “novels” were about passionate love affairs he claimed to have had with exotic women, and how (always) the affairs ended with his saying a sad farewell. They were self-aggrandising, posing, colourful, melodramatic, operatic (one of them was the basis for Delibes' opera Lakme).
And they were more than a little camp.
For here is the side of “Loti” not known by many of his original French readers, who were mainly caught up in his “romance of empire”, like English readers of Kipling.
Though he was married and had children, “Loti”, who loved to pose and be photographed in the exotic costumes he had gathered, was more interested in the sexual company of men.
This means that those litterateurs who comment on his works now tend to be of two sorts. (a.) The disciples of Edward Said, who condemn him for his “Orientalism” and his distorted imperialist views of the countries he visited. And (b.) those who want to use his works as examples of an emerging gay identity, especially in the way he so often casts lingering glances at handsome sailors. It’s as if he were a French mixture of Kipling and Oscar Wilde.
In Pecheur d’Islande I did indeed find one irritating chapter in which “Loti” bursts into the first person to claim personal knowledge of the places Sylvestre sees in the Far East; and I did indeed wonder if the fisherman Yann’s reluctance to marry Gaud didn’t have more to do with his preference for the company of fishermen.
But of course this is reading with the informed (and slightly cynical) eyes of an early 21st century reader. You can see something homoerotic in the way Yann cuddles Sylvestre for mutual warmth in the cold nights off the coast of Iceland. But that’s it for gay subtext, and unnoticeable to any but a reader who was desperately looking for it.
“Pierre Loti” may have been camp, but in its main impact, this book isn’t.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


By this stage, I know I do not have to tell you about my love for the city of Paris. I would never pose as the expert on the place, but I have stayed there three times in my life - once in childhood, and the second and third times last year and this year. That is why I have presented you with such posts as Lost Generation’s Paris in Not My Paris, wherein I scorned the American Tourist view of the city. And Let’sTalk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, wherein I celebrated a visit to Montmartre cemetery. And Encounter in a Cathedral, which reconstructed a rather unnerving conversation with an old Frenchwoman in Notre Dame. And as you will know by the frequency with which French novels turn up in the “Something Old” section of this blog, I am something of a Francophile.
So when, three weeks ago, there were coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris leaving over 130 people dead, I could immediately do what every nitwit on the ‘net was doing and jump up and down loudly shouting “ME! ME! ME! Look! That right bank restaurant where gunmen opened fire? Well it was just two streets away from where we enjoyed an evening at a jazz club back in June!
Which is true, but which, like selfies taken at famous monuments, is really a form of self-aggrandisement.
I am here – literally in the picture – and you are not. See, I’m attached to momentous world events! Nyah-na-nyah-na-nyah-nyah!
It’s this matter of how we publicly react to horrible world events which now concerns me.
On Facebook, the kneejerk reaction of some was to have their ID pictures covered in a tricolour to show their solidarity with the dead. Okay – I don’t object. But isn’t it a little mechanical as a form of solidarity? I mean, there’s an app to show you how to modify your image like this at the press of a key. This doesn’t take too much thought – or verbal expression.
But maybe, in the face of mass terror, it is hard to express thoughts cogently. Words are not adequate to the task. British comedian John Oliver is reduced to saying, on his American show, “***k You!” to the terrorists, which for some reason one New Zealand magazine regards as awfully significant and clever.
One reaction is to pray, so on the ‘net there were exhortations to “Pray for Paris”. Fair enough. Clear and calm your mind and think of something much bigger than yourself, of which you are only a part, and think positively of the people who suffered in the attacks and dedicate yourself to not being part of the world’s destructive violence. All good things to do.
But almost at once, the Paris outrages became a pretext for propaganda. Countering the “Pray for Paris” logo, a militant atheist posted a logo saying. “Don’t Pray for Paris – Fight Hateful Religious Ideologies”. The bombers and shooters were (probably) Islamicists. Islamicists are Muslims. Therefore Islam is dangerous. Therefore religion is dangerous and causes violence. Q. E. D. and a nice, neat monocausal view of world events has been proposed, which saves the speaker the bother of actually looking at the complicated genesis of terrorism. The flaws in the slogan are obvious. (We all deplore “hateful ideologies”, but are all “hateful ideologies” religious? Ask Joe Stalin or Pol Pot.) More to the point, the propagandist rejects prayer as a reaction, saying it is useless and has no “practical” outcome. Why, a clinical study from Harvard supports his view….
But, using such logic, the same must apply to candle-lit vigils, tears, flowers left at the scenes of massacre, lighting up public monuments with the tricolour, banners declaring defiance of the terrorists, and other forms of public expression which are not specifically religious…. None of these are “practical” things. They don’t have a material outcome on the problem of terrorism.
But don’t they, slowly and incrementally, change the public attitude to violence? The security forces and armies and police have to do the hard and dangerous practical work of hunting the terrorists down. But prayer and candle vigils and flowers of regret and tears – they focus the minds of the bereaved and outraged on sorrow, on peace, on reconciliation – not on revenge and on promoting further violence. Perhaps “practicality” is defined in very narrow terms by propagandists.
Major public outrages should not be pretexts for pushing ideological barrows – religious or anti-religious. We should not react to a massacre by saying “Oh goodie! – here’s another opportunity to push my worldview in your face!” What sympathy or solidarity for anyone is shown by such a reaction? Tears, sorrow and prayers are natural human reactions to crisis. A lack of them probably shows deep indifference to other human beings.